New York Times columnist David Brooks looks to early twentieth century Catholic thinkers for solutions to what ails America. What he really wants is to hang a huge sign on the Capitol Dome that reads “Under New Management.”
In a column entitled “The Broken Society,” Brooks accurately describes some of our current problems (not that it takes much ingenuity to do so):
The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis.
The source of these problems Brooks argues in his discussion of an essay by British writer Phillip Blond, is int two revolutions: a cultural revolution from the Left, and a market revolution from the Right. The proper response to these revolutions would, Brooks writes,
remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.
What Brooks describes has its roots in Distributism, an idea promoted by G.K. Chesterton and Hiliare Belloc and taken up by American Southern Agrarians in the 1930s. Alan Carlson, an academic in the Southern Agrarian style, endorses the idea. Thomas E. Woods Jr., an academic from the Austrian economic tradition, is one of its biggest critics.
I will admit to a fondness for the Catholic Social Teaching embodied in Distributism. How can one argue against broad ownership of private property and the belief in a government that does not infringe on voluntary associations that create local solutions to local problems?
Within the Distributist idea, however, is a naïve view of government, which can be seen in Brooks’s commentary:
To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs. He would rebuild the “village college” so that universities would be more intertwined with the towns around them.
It’s nice that Blond would want to do such a thing. Expecting this from government bureaucrats, however, is something else entirely. Show me the “senior government official” who is going to give up power and put it in the hands of “front-line civil servants.” In addition, a government that favors “small shopkeepers” through zoning legislation designed to limit “retail giants” is a Big Government that’s picking winners and losers, which it can never have enough information and integrity to do wisely and justly.
Brooks’ and Blonde’s articles are interesting and challenging contributions to today’s cultural debate, but they embody a problem to which Mark Steyn often alludes: As government grows, conservatives stop arguing for its limitation. Instead, they argue that they can manage Big Government better than liberals can. Well, they can’t, as the George W. Bush administration vividly demonstrated.